Review by C.J. Bunce
The sign of good storytelling for any retelling or prequel is knowing the ending of the story upfront and still wanting to come back for more. From bookending the season with appearances by interesting Wynonna Earp star Melanie Scrofano to creating one the franchises best alien characters with Bruce Horak’s chief engineer Hemmer, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds isn’t just good Star Trek, it’s the best first season of any Star Trek series since… well, the first season of the original series back in 1966. Offering more than one episode that should be a contender for your own Top 10 list of the best of the entire franchise, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds demonstrates if you keep trying, you eventually may stick the landing.
Fans of Captain Pike’s “old is new again” Enterprise from the second season of Star Trek: Discovery got their wish with the return of Anson Mount’s captain, new Number One actor Rebecca Romijn and new Science Officer Spock actor Ethan Peck. In a story and character–Captain Pike– drawn from the pilot for the first episode of Star Trek filmed back in 1964 as played by Jeffrey Hunter, a character we’ve known and loved in the movies as played by Bruce Greenwood, we have an actor and character again exactly right for the part. Like Chris Pine as Kirk, and Zachary Quinto as Spock. Apparently you can recast beloved genre characters and be successful after all.
The greatest success is the conceit of this Captain Pike knowing what viewers know: he has a dark fate coming. Even the cockiness of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk can’t be explained like the swaggering style of this Captain Pike. Incredibly, it worked. Jess Bush’s performance as Nurse Chapel will have viewers believing she is also in jeopardy, especially in the final two episodes, despite what we know: that the character once played by Majel Barrett must survive to finally arrive at the first episode of the original Star Trek in a few years.
In the final episode of season one, “A Quality of Mercy,” viewers revisit the Romulans in an episode on par with the Next Generation episode “The Defector” and the Voyager episode “Eye of the Needle.” The story does a lot, including tying back to the Kelvin timeline movies, the “Unification” and “Birthright” episodes, and especially the episode “Balance of Terror.” “A Quality of Mercy” also has that A Christmas Carol quality of episodes like the Next Generation episode “Tapestry” and the Voyager episode “Flashback,” but this is executed even better.
It goes without saying Strange New Worlds is a cut above other 21st century efforts Enterprise, Star Trek Discovery, and Star Trek Picard. The success seems due to the combination of scripts from Henry Alonso Myers (Chuck, Charmed), Akela Cooper (Luke Cage), Beau DeMayo (Moon Knight), Davy Perez (Supernatural), Sarah Tarkoff (Arrow), Bill Wolkoff (Star Wars Rebels, Tron: Uprising), Robin Wasserman, and Onitra Johnson (none of these writers have written for previous Star Trek series) and a host of new-to-the franchise “working directors” who earned their genre cred from series from The Librarians to The Man in the High Castle. Despite the franchise’s apparent need to colloquialize the franchise with 21st century slang and bits of profanity, it showed improvements with the dialogue in Strange New Worlds over Star Trek Discovery and Star Trek Picard. Even better, there are no Klingons, and although we get a time traveler in the final episode, there’s no Q or Prophets or other major supernatural elements–Star Trek is better as science fiction than fantasy.
Mount’s stage presence, gravitas, and humor is believable as a pragmatic captain in his or any timeline. The cast is so fleshed out that Rebecca Romijn doesn’t get showcased that much, but it looks like there will be opportunity for that next season. Despite operating in the shadow of Leonard Nimoy, Ethan Peck stepped into the role of Spock and hasn’t looked back, a feat Zachary Quinto wrestled with before him in the Kelvin timeline movies. Carefully and deftly re-created from the ground up, Celia Rose Gooding is now unquestionably the Uhura of Nichelle Nichols’ Enterprise. Babs Olusanmokun is a worthy predecessor to DeForest Kelley’s chief medical officer Bones. Christina Chong as Lt. La’an Noonien Singh proved to be worthy of her “tough guy” role (although her standout performance was as a princess in the very Trek throwback episode “The Elyssian Kingdom,” as was Melissa Navia as cocky Enterprise pilot Erica Ortegas, whose performance gets better with each episode, culminating in her confronting Captain Pike in the season finale.
Despite Captain Pike’s “unbreakable” attitude, he gets tested in story after story. The franchise stretched its boundaries with a gory Alien tribute in its penultimate episode, “All Those That Wander,” revisits a deep-cut throwback with Gia Sandhu’s T’Pring, and has some good laughs in “Spock Amok.”
Is it a perfect series? No. The finest character and performance is Bruce Horak as chief engineer Hemmer. It’s a shame, and a waste, to kill off such a great creation so soon, especially as the only physically challenged character and only fully makeuped alien in the crew–really for “strange new worlds” the Enterprise has too many humans and Hemmer’s demise makes it worse. Also, one of the most hopeful storylines in Star Trek in years–probably since Gene Roddenberry’s own participation–was the idea that Dr. M’Benga could hold his daughter in statis in a transporter pending improvements in medical technology. It was a plot that could have been revisited for an entire five-season run, but the writers cut it off. But these were the low points of a really great season of television.
What are we holding out hopes for next season? Appearances of M’Ress and Arex from the animated series. A peek at Montgomery Scott, who served 20 years in Starfleet before serving under Kirk sounds like it’s off the table, based on comments from the production (despite a voice in the background on the Farragut). We could still meet a young Hikaru Sulu. Will we see Pike’s crew members from the past, like John Hoyt’s character Dr. Phillip Boyce? Peter Duryea’s Helmsman Tyler? A transport chief and geologist based on Pike’s earlier appearance? Melanie Scrofano’s Captain Batel appears to be a certainty for season two.
Taking place a decade before the original Star Trek series and intended to be more episodic and optimistic like the original series, Strange New Worlds really nailed it. The writing, sets, costumes, props, visual effects, and cinematography were refreshing, inventive, exciting, and fun.
Strange New Worlds is not to be missed. Watch the entire first season now on Paramount+.